Panic? Or Don’t Panic? Which Is It?

by Peter O’Neil

Many fantasy baseball experts admonish those who express nervousness over a high-priced superstar’s slow start. “Don’t panic!” they say. “Players always revert to their norm.” Others chirp in on public forums: “It’s only April, the stats are meaningless.”

And the most obnoxious will annoyingly declare:  “Gee, I wish you were in my league. I’d take you to the cleaners, offering you my red-hot Chris Duncan for your slow-starting Carlos Lee.”

It is of course true that you should never trade a slumping elite player for a hot-starting unknown.  But given all the available information and expertise out there these days, are there really players in remotely serious leagues who make those kinds of deals?  Even if they did the scorn heaped down on them assures they will too petrified to do it  again, and the beneficiary would earn a “shark” reputation that could make future trading difficult.

To me the real question is this: Should we really be so quick to dismiss April stats? Is a star’s slow start, or an unheralded player’s heroics, really meaningless?

I have always felt that April stats are fairly significant.  And I’d like to cite some research I’ve been looking over, produced by one of fantasy’s top gurus, to back up my views.

Ron Shandler’s 2009 edition of the Forecaster reproduced his study of the 2005 season that looked at players who had surprisingly good, or bad, years, and sought to determine if these breakouts and breakdowns were identifiable by the end of April.

The study concluded that a little over 40 per cent of hitters and pitchers who earned $10 more than projected for the whole season were red-hot in April.

More than half of hitters (56 per cent) and 3/4 of pitchers (74 per cent) who earned $10 less than projected were also identifiable in April.

Shandler’s conclusion was that, for other than pitchers about to have lousy years, “April was not a strong leading indicator.”

The study also looked at major breakouts — players earning $20-$25 more than predicted — and found these were identifiable in 45 per cent of the cases. His conclusion: “April surgers are less than a 50-50 proposition to maintain that level all season.”

I love the research, so once again the fantasy baseball community has benefited from Shandler’s great work. But I have a different perspective on the conclusion.

If everyone in fantasy agreed that 100 per cent of players off to amazing, or miserable, starts in April were going to maintain that level, then this study would poke a pin in that balloon. But we know that’s not the case.

The fact is that the vast majority of fantasy participants are inherently skeptical of players who come out of nowhere to start strongly.   They might find it interesting that Chris Duncan is hitting more than .350 right now, but how many would pay a price to have him on their teams?

Similarly, while owners might be a little worried right now that David Ortiz is well under the Mendoza line, it’s going to be a while before they give up on the idea that their star asset will come back with a vengeance. Of course, experts constantly urging them to be patient and assuring them that players revert to the mean reinforces this view.

So I doubt very much if fantasy players realize there is at least a 40 per cent chance the player performing well above expectations will remain that way, and that more than half of the league’s slumping hitters, and three-quarters of struggling pitchers, won’t recover.

A second study, also by Shandler, reinforced my view.

Last May he proposed a theoretical trade of hot April starters (including Fred Lewis, Ryan Doumit, Kyle Lohse, Chipper Jones, Cliff Lee among them) for strugglers (like Robinson Cano, Justin Verlander, Kenji Johjima, Austin Kearns, Adam Laroche, and Roy Oswalt). He suggested tongue somewhat in cheek that the buyer of the slow starters would have to be nuts to accept such a group of struggling bums as Oswalt and Cano.

Of course, his point was that the former group of overachievers were obvious sell-high candidates, while the underachievers were ideal buy-low opportunities. He said the goal of this column was to “prove that early season mass hysteria” about hot or cold starters “is really tiresome.” He stated as fact that his underachievers would out-earn the overachievers, and made a joking reference to the absurdity of anyone who would rather have Lohse over Verlander.

But the result was a shocker, to me and I assume to Shandler. The 10 so-called overachievers actually performed better the rest of the way, with Lohse playing a key role by clearly pitching better than Verlander.

I think these results open our eyes to changing realities. Shandler deliberately chose the overachieving Doumit among the group of players he wanted to trade away, and cited the underachieving Johjima as an ideal target. The message here was obvious: the smart money should be betting on Johjima, since he had a longer track record and the projected stats were so much better.

Yet here we are a year later and Doumit is an elite catching option and Johjima is unrosterable in numerous formats.

Things change, and sometimes the signs are obvious in April.

So what can we do as fantasy players with this information? Well, that’s a tough one. Ideally, fantasy experts should be doing a version of the 2005 study every year to give us more information on the springtime genesis of breakouts and breakdowns.

But until then? I’m not advocating panic trades, of course. It’s still going to be tough figuring out which of your hot starters is headed for a career year. And it will always be hard to try to sell struggling players, particularly if you have a reputation of being one of the smarter cookies in your league. People will assume you know there’s an underlying problem.

But if there’s a shark in your league trolling for slow-starters, and offering some flash-in-the-pan who’s leading the league in RBIs, don’t necessarily assume you’re about to be duped.  There’s a not-unreasonable chance that you could be getting a stud for a dud.

(Peter O’Neil is the Paris-based Europe correspondent for a Canadian news agency. He writes for www.canada.com/fantasybaseball)

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